The Art of the Spreadsheet. Copyright 2008 John F. Raffensperger

1. Why is spreadsheet style important?
2. Make your spreadsheet read from left to right and top to bottom.
3. Omit unneeded bytes.
4. Omit unneeded sheets.
5. Organize blocks with care.
6. Attend to blank space.
7. Omit unneeded cells.
8. Format with caution.
9. Show all the information.
10. Spreadsheet errors.
11. How to audit a spreadsheet.
12. Suggestions for operations researchers.
13. Teaching the art of the spreadsheet.
Appendix. Checklist for a spreadsheet.

13. Teaching the art of the spreadsheet

Perhaps the best way to teach spreadsheet style is to project a spreadsheet on screen and invite discussion about how its readability may be improved.

Show perverse and spaghetti spreadsheets.

Discuss order of precedence of arithmetic operators, formula simplification, and formula nesting.

Show relics.

Demonstrate the auditing tools.

Compare a spreadsheet with little formatting to one with heavy formatting.

Discuss formats of decoration and compare to formats of description.

Spend time on nest and erase. Make the connection to mathematical substitution.

Preach conciseness.

Show how to rearrange a spreadsheet to conform to good style.

Using a data projector, I demonstrate the conversion of a bad spreadsheet into a good one, using the auditing process presented in section 10. The steps and Excel commands are displayed on a separate screen.

Homework assignments should require good style. Require students to write a spreadsheet so arcs of precedence should go left to right and top to bottom. Put Tufte (1983) on reserve at the library. Checklists (as the one provided in the Appendix) are helpful.

While I have used analogies to writing text, mathematics, and graphics, I prefer most the analogy to writing text. Creating a spreadsheet is more like writing text than it is like coding in C. We should tell students not to embed numeric constants in formulas, but we might explain it by saying “because you should not hide a key definition in a footnote or appendix.”

Writing text, graphics, and mathematical modeling are best taught with examples of well-written work. Unfortunately, spreadsheet writing has no Nobel Prize for literature, no awards for graphic design, and nothing like a Franz Edelman Prize. There does not exist a publicly recognized outstanding set of spreadsheets that can serve as great examples. Tufte put it this way:

Tufte, Edward, Envisioning Information, 1990, Graphics Press, Cheshire, Conn., p. 9.

Despite the beauty and utility of the best work, design of information has engaged little critical or aesthetic notice: there is no Museum of Cognitive Art.

In spite of the lack of good information about spreadsheet style, we can teach spreadsheet writing by teaching writing of mathematical text, caution of flashy graphics, basic algebra, and good modeling. Of these there are many excellent examples. Combined, we have guides to teach spreadsheet style.